Generals always fall into the trap of fighting the last war.
That is a well-known adage of military history. Adages, like clichés, have a funny way of being true.
A new book, The War Behind Me, chronicles the heretofore hidden excesses and abuses the Vietnamese people suffered at the hands of the American military machine and the effort made by the Pentagon to keep those abuses away from public view.
This was particularly true after Seymour Hersh famously blew the lid off of the massacre at My Lai. The massacre was an outgrowth of the “Strategic Hamlet” program, a Pentagon brainchild that determined that “saving” a village from going Communist might very well mean destroying it.
Kinda like spreading democracy at gunpoint or keeping the peace by starting pre-emptive wars…it requires serious mental gymnastics to keep these contradictions straight.
In the case of My Lai, a young lieutenant—Lt. Calley—took the blame and the fall for being on the front lines of a bankrupt policy. The policy-makers sacrificed him to quell the public outcry and got away scot-free.
A lower-level cog in the machine was removed as a bad actor, a “bad apple,” while those who put him in an untenable situation blithely move on.
Lynndie England, you are not alone. Or unique.
But how long will it take historians and journalists and investigators to uncover the truth about what happened in Iraq? How many abuses and excesses have we not heard about?
Some, like the white phosphorous massacre in Falluja, are not that hidden. While they were not really covered by our mainstream media, the story did get reported around the world. Like the fact that those who fled prior to the assault were sorted out as they left and that males, some mere teenagers, were forced to return to the city prior to the attack. Prior to the use of what is, essentially, a chemical weapon that burns through flesh with acidic force.
There was Haditha and the suprisingly frank Pentagon report that has gone down the memory hole.
Or there is the Blackwater massacre. Those men are actually being indicted. But what of the policy of using mercenaries? Or the decisions that lead to the sort of checkpoint killings that Blackwater mercs were involved in time and again in Iraq?
That is why the “Shoe Heard ‘Round the World” is a story that is not going away.
Because people, particularly in the Arab world, have not forgotten about Abu Ghraib. Or Shock and Awe.
Because, in light of our history in Vietnam, the world doesn’t really trust us to conduct war in “good faith.”
We think that the pre-emptive doctrine—the Bush Doctrine—is new. But it isn’t. The Domino Theory, and the need to intervene before countries “go Red,” is oddly similar to the arguments behind the Bush Doctrine. Both justified attacking countries that didn’t attack us.
And the soldiers on the ground, those not fighting a “just war” against those who attacked us, are put into the morally ambiguous crossfire. They pay the price for the decisions of those who sit comfortably at desks and make the decisions. Those who set the policies.
They come home carrying the memories of fighting to occupy, to subdue and to force civilian capitulation. Not to liberate. It is morally sound to liberate a people from a foreign invader, like the liberation of France in WWII. It is psychologically messy to try to fight counter-insurgency after an invasion.
It leads to excesses. And abuses. Because you have no idea who the enemy is. Returning soldiers are victims, too. They often pay a psychological price that lasts a lifetime.
Like we’ve seen in Iraq. Like we saw in Vietnam.
With draft-evading Dick Cheney defiantly bloviating about ordering waterboarding. As Don Rumsfeld sits in a cozy chair at Stanford. And while President Bush bops around on his “hey, I kept America safe” farewell tour…we see that, like those axiomatic generals of military history, we are still fighting the last war.